One of the Joys of Maturity
Garlic is one of the easiest, most trouble free and productive crops one can grow in a home garden. In our region, you plant it in the late fall in an area that will get full sun in summer, forget it for the winter, weed it a bit through spring and early summer, and harvest in July.
For some reason, we didn't grow garlic in our garden until about ten years ago. I'm not sure why we didn't, other than garlic for planting always seemed rather expensive. Once I got started with garlic, I realized that the initial expense for our garlic starts could be pretty much a one time or at least an occasional expense. We usually get enough garlic from our plantings to satisfy our needs, plant a new crop, and share with family. Having said that, we did buy a lot of garlic to plant in 2014, as I was unhappy with the quality of the garlic we'd grown the previous year.
Garlic is normally grown from cloves, which are parts of a garlic bulb. Each full-sized clove should be capable of producing a complete bulb of garlic cloves over its growth period. Garlic cloves can range from rather small in size to huge elephant garlic cloves.
Note that elephant garlic is really more closely related to leeks than garlic, but does have a very mild garlicky flavor. For this discussion, we'll treat it as garlic, as one grows it just like standard garlic.
While purchasing ones first garlic is a bit expensive, one can use their own garlic cloves for planting in succeeding years. We replaced most of our own garlic for planting in 2014. We'd had very wet conditions for two straight years, had dogs digging up our garlic over the winter, and noticed the vigor of our garlic was declining. Many of our garlic bulbs had damaged wrappers and needed to be used immediately or dehydrated and ground for garlic powder, as such bulbs don't store well. So after using our own garlic for replanting for about six years, we invested in new garlic bulbs and cloves for the 2014-2015 season, other than some elephant garlic which was good enough to replant.
We've successfully purchased good bulbs of garlic for planting over the years from the Territorial Seed Company, Sow True Seed, Botanical Interests, Burpee, and Johnny's Selected Seeds (who apparently no longer sell garlic bulbs). The quality of garlic bulbs sold varies widely, and many seed houses sell out fairly early in the season. If you're planning on ordering garlic bulbs for planting, you should get your order placed in July or August to assure getting the varieties you want.
Garlic varieties are classified as softneck, hardneck, and elephant. Softneck garlic isn't as cold weather tolerant as hardneck, but stores better. Hardneck garlics are said to have more "complex" flavor, but generally have a shorter storage life than softnecks. Elephant garlic, again, isn't really a garlic, but tastes like one and stores well for us into the spring.
For our purposes, we simply grow our garlic, softneck and hardneck, store it, and use it. The biggest difference we see between softneck and hardneck is that softneck is a lot easier to braid. I've added links at the end of this page to a couple of good discussions about the characteristics of softneck and hardneck garlic.
When to Plant
In southwest, central Indiana, the common gardening wisdom is to plant ones garlic in October after the first frost. The idea is to get the garlic into the ground when it can start some root growth before the ground freezes, much like fall planting trees. In only one year out of the last seven have we made an October planting, one year going as late as November 30, a day before a hard freeze and heavy snow set in! We often have fall crops in the way of our garlic planting and sometimes don't experience a heavy frost until late in October. Wet ground conditions in the fall often delay things, as we wait for dryer weather to rototill our garlic plot. But getting garlic into the ground as soon as you can after your first frost will give it more time to put out roots, so it can really get growing in the spring.
In northern areas where the soil freezes too early and too deep to fall plant garlic, spring planting with a late fall harvest is possible.
Most sources state that garlic grows best in fertile, well drained soil that isn't too dense. Oh, if we all only had such soil!
We now grow our garlic in our raised garden beds that have been lavished with compost and peat moss. But in the past, we've grown good garlic on average garden soil. A bit of peat moss to loosen the soil (with a touch of limestone to moderate the peat's acidity) helps. But the "well drained soil" part should be taken to heart.
Even though we've been growing our garlic in our raised beds, I'd let the soil level of our main bed drop several inches a few years ago and ignored some perimeter drainage problems. We paid dearly for those mistakes in moisture damaged garlic before adding a truckload of purchased compost to raise the soil level in the bed and cutting shallow drainage ditches to take away excess moisture that once stood in a low spot on one side of the bed.
If we can, we thoroughly rototill the area where our garlic is to be planted. We work in a little 12-12-12 commercial fertilizer, peat moss if we have it, and lime if a pH test indicates we need to get the soil closer to an ideal pH of 6.8-7. Loosening the soil a day or so before planting greatly eases the planting. If you lack a rototiller, a good garden fork should loosen the soil nicely.
This last fall, we didn't add any more compost, but did work in six 3.8 cubic foot bales of peat moss with appropriate lime to loosen the soil in our entire main raised bed. Since we have mole problems and hound dogs who love to dig up moles, we treated the main bed with a heavy dose of Milky Spore to deter the Japanese Beetle larva and cutworms moles love to eat.
I used to plant our garlic by digging a hole for each garlic clove with a garden trowel. I often ended up with some nasty blisters on the palm of my hand from pushing the trowel into the often too firm soil. But a couple of years ago I saw a video on the Burpee Gardening site on How to Grow Garlic that employed a garlic dibble. I bought one, and after a few repairs and improvements, found it to be a good tool for planting our standard garlic. While I start holes for our elephant garlic with the dibble, I sometimes have to use a trowel to widen and deepen the holes to accommodate the huge cloves of elephant garlic.
After raking the planting area smooth with a garden rake, I use wooden stakes and string to mark my row. When planting multiple rows, I start at the center, working out, so I don't compress the soil over planted cloves.
Garlic needs a bit of space to grow. The late and great Jim Crockett recommended a five inch spacing between cloves (and later plants) in his classic volume, Crockett's Victory Garden. While I consider Crockett THE SOURCE on all things gardening, I like to space our garlic cloves at least seven inches apart in the row with a similar minimum of seven inches between the rows.
Using either a dibble or trowel, one needs to make a hole deep enough for the garlic clove. I drive our dibble about seven inches into the ground for planting, as the hole fills up a bit as I work a sprinkle of bone meal into the base of the hole. Dumping in a bunch of bone meal and not working it into the surrounding soil will just give you a gooey, sticky mess of wet, unused bone meal at harvest around the garlic roots. (Gee, does that sound like I've made that mistake in the past?)
I place the garlic cloves in the ground so they will have at least a couple of inches of soil over them so they don't heave out of the ground with winter freezes and thaws. I often shoot for about three inches of soil over each clove.
Note that it is absolutely essential to get the clove in the ground with the pointy side up and the root side down.
Once the clove is in the ground, I pull soil back into the hole and firm it a bit with a pat of the hand. Note from the image at right that I make and plant several holes at a time. I also use a foam knee pad to protect my aging knees during the process.
After planting, I cover our garlic patch with several inches of mixed grass clipping and leaf mulch. The mulch helps even out winter temperature extremes, retains soil moisture, holds back weeds, and seems to produce a better garlic crop. The mulch must be pulled back in late winter or early spring, as it tends to matt and prevent some garlic shoots from penetrating it and getting to sunlight.
For our fall, 2014 planting, I ended up putting in two rows of elephant garlic. One row was newly purchased garlic from Territorial Seed and Sow True Seed. The cloves were huge. The other row of elephant garlic got our saved elephant garlic cloves, which were considerably smaller than the purchased stuff.
I also planted four rows of standard garlic, including Inchelium Red, German Red, German White, Softneck Silver White, Purple Glazer, and Chesnock Red. I didn't use any of our saved standard garlic cloves. As I mentioned earlier, they had seemed to lose vigor over the last few years. Note that every variety we ordered and planted this year was sold out by the time we planted. Order your garlic early!!
During the Winter
Don't be shocked if your garlic puts up leaves in the late fall or early winter. During a mild winter, garlic may emerge during January or February. The emerged leaves and the buried garlic should survive freezing weather. During the winter of 2011-2012, the first of our garlic began poking through the mulch in December. Of course, that was the warm winter that preceded the drought of 2012.
In the Spring
I cleared the mulch off of our garlic patch in 2015 the first day the area was totally free of snow (March 11). As I rolled up the mulch, some of it was still frozen to the ground. But even so, removing the mulch revealed bent and yellowed garlic shoots that had tried and failed to penetrate the matted mulch! The moral of this is to get any mulch off your garlic patch in late winter, if possible.
With the mulch removed, I was amazed at the number of garlic plants that had already broken the soil surface. The bent and yellowed plants quickly recovered. There were, of course, some bare patches in the rows and even one entirely bare row at that point. As the weather warmed, these areas filled in with slow to emerge garlic shoots.
Mulch - Remove Mulch - Mulch Again
Like any other garden plant, garlic likes adequate soil moisture and sunlight. So while it may seem like a broken record, once all your garlic has emerged, it's a good idea to again get some mulch around the plants. We use grass clipping mulch because it's free and enriches the soil as it decays (I'm ignoring for now that it also brings weed seed into ones garden.). The mulch helps retain soil moisture around the garlic plants as they grow and mature. Of course, the main purpose of the mulch is to hold back weeds which need oxygen, moisture, and sunlight to emerge.
Fertilizers really aren't necessary for garlic in the early spring. If planted in moderately good soil with a bit of help from bone meal and/or commercial fertilizer, the garlic may have all the nutrition it needs to produce a crop. If you're worried about soil fertility, scratching a little commercial fertilizer heavy on the low numbers during the growing season won't hurt. Think 5-10-10 or something similar. If your garlic leaves begin to show yellow streaks, a balanced fertilizer may be indicated, as the yellowing (flashing) is a sign of nitrogen stress. Some sources also recommend regular foliar feeding for garlic at two week intervals, but those sources are mostly fertilizer companies.
Remember that I began this piece by noting that garlic was easy to grow? Once it's up and mulched, it's just a matter of pulling any weeds that defeat the mulch, snapping off the occasional scape (bloom spike), and waiting for the garlic to mature.
Thompson & Morgan (UK) note:
When the garlic leaves just begin to brown, it's time to dig your garlic. There's nothing wrong, though, with carefully taking a bulb or two early. There are few cooking treats quite like cooking with freshly dug garlic.
I use a garden fork to loosen the soil around our garlic, getting under the bulbs and slightly lifting them. I actually dig a hole up to the garlic, so the bulbs come out mostly sideways. Just pulling at the leaves will break them off, making curing ones garlic more difficult. Once the soil is really loose and I can see the garlic bulb, I pull it sideways by the leaves before lifting it out of the soil.
I always seem to find several garlic bulbs that have died prematurely. No leaves indicate their location, so I always dig the whole bed to get all the garlic bulbs out. Such digging is good for your soil, as it deeply works and loosens ones soil. It also provides some serious exercise that may leave senior legs and shoulders a bit sore.
I used to cure our garlic on our back porch for a week or so before storing it. That worked well in dry years, but if rain blew under the porch roof, the garlic got wet, impeding the curing process.
I now just throw a sheet of plywood over some old furniture or on sawhorses in the garage and spread the garlic plants over it with the leaves still attached. The garage is pretty dark, especially when I cover the open, screened windows with old, torn burlap bags. I use an old fan set to blow across the garlic to promote drying.
When the tops of the garlic are thoroughly dry, I snip them with scissors to three inches above the bulb, bag them in old, mesh onion and/or potato bags, and hang the bags from the rafters of our basement in a somewhat cool, somewhat dark area of our basement. While our basement is too warm for ideal storage, our biggest storage problem is that the garlic dries out a bit too much. Around 40° F and 70% humidity are recommended for storing garlic, although we do pretty well with it in a regular, good old basement.
One can also braid the leaves to store garlic. We have done so more as a bit of a lark than as a serious storage option. But braiding does allow the leaves (and bulbs) to continue to dry, if necessary. Braided garlic looks sorta cool, and is easy to hang from a hook in any odd space. I do run a string or thin piece of rope through my braid to reinforce it, in case leaves dry and break.
You might ask how long our stored garlic lasts. Since we grow a bit more than we can use, process, and give away, we have garlic right up until the time we begin stealing fresh garlic the next year. Our old garlic then gets unceremoniously dumped on our working compost pile. To accomplish such an amazing feat, we grow a garlic patch of just 3' x 15' each year. That's not much space to devote to having a full year's worth of delicious, homegrown garlic!
As I mentioned earlier, we had a couple of crops of garlic damaged by soil moisture. While the garlic was good when dug, the bulb wrappers were damaged, making the garlic bulbs poor candidates for storage. With way too much fresh garlic to use immediately, I researched making garlic powder online and set out to make some.
Making garlic powder is really pretty easy. You just peel the garlic cloves, run them through a food processor, and then spread the garlic paste on the shelves of a food dehydrator to dry. Once dried, you grind the garlic to powder. We use an old coffee grinder for such chores. (Note that running Cheerios and/or Quaker Oats through your grinder afterwards will help clear the garlic mess.)
Of course, I made the mistake of starting to dehydrate the garlic in the house! Oh, my! After several days of suffering though incredibly strong garlic odors in the house, the dehydrator got moved into the garage.
I should add here that garlic cloves peel much easier when fresh, so don't put off doing your garlic powder (as I did).
Garlic Scapes, "Blooms," and Bulbils
Garlic will occasionally put up a rather rigid, central stalk late in the season known as a scape. If allowed to grow, the scape will eventually appear to bloom, but may also reduce the size of the bulb from which it grows. While it's best to snap off such scapes early, I've been known to let them grow to maturity.
Elephant garlic and hardneck garlic are most likely to produce scapes. The bloom they produce is pretty, although it doesn't pollinate, but vegetatively produces small bulbils that can be harvested and grown out to produce garlic bulbs...in two to three years. Garlic grown from bulbils is said to have improved growth vigor. I don't know, as we just harvested and started our first bulbils last year. But the beautiful "bloom" was worth letting an elephant garlic go way past the normal digging date.
Good Info on Garlic
So there you have it, how to grow garlic in a nutshell. Okay, so it's a rather big and long nutshell, but garlic really is easy. Do note that the information above may be subject to error. I'm not a trained horticulturalist or even a master gardener. What I've written is what works for us, on our ground, under our growing conditions.
I hope you find it helpful.
Contact Steve Wood, the at Senior Gardening
last updated 11/15/2016